February 9, 2023 - 7:00am

The long-awaited review of Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism programme, has been released. William Shawcross, the author of the report, in his foreword states, “Prevent is out of kilter with the rest of the counter-terrorism system”. One of the reasons for this is how the extreme Right-wing is defined compared to Islamist extremism, its ideological counterpart. This has resulted in the so-called rise of the extreme Right-wing, despite the last six out of eight terrorist attacks having been carried out by Islamist extremists.

The apparent rise of extreme Right-wing terrorism seems to be based on nothing more than referrals to Prevent. For example, there has been an increase in overall referrals from 4,915 for the year ending March 31, 2021 to 6,406 for the year ending March 31, 2022. This amounts to a 30% increase. What’s more, there is a heightened number of referrals based on extreme Right-wing radicalisation concerns: over a two-year period, extreme Right-wing referrals lead the figures, from 1229 for the year ending 2020/21 to 1309 for 2021/22. 

These figures may sound alarming, but they’re not. For one, the starting point for referrals is low: 968 in 2016-17 to 1,404 in 2019-20. In addition, they appear to be predicated on variable definitions of the two extremist ideologies, rather than reflecting the threat posed by individuals drawn to the ideology. This has led to some views being reframed as extremely Right-wing, when they are no more than conservative views.

The review demonstrates this in one case where a Prevent Education Officer compared recruitment material from Salafi jihadis to that of conservative commentators such as Melanie Philips and Douglas Murray. As the review itself states, “the present boundaries around what is termed by Prevent as extremist Islamist ideology are drawn too narrowly while the boundaries around the ideology of the Extreme Right-Wing are too broad.”

When we look at the same six-year period, the decline in Islamist extremism referrals has been substantial. In the year 2016/17 and 2017/18 referrals dwarfed all other forms of radicalisation, including the extreme Right-wing. At its peak in the year 2016/17, referrals reached a total of 3,706 whereas its lowest point was 1027 in the year 2021/22 (a 72% decrease). While these figures, prima facie, seem encouraging, they must be treated with the same caution with which we are treating the extreme Right-wing.

The definition of Islamist extremism, as the review suggests, is too narrow; thus referrals that would normally have been made for individuals at risk of being radicalised by this ideology are likely to be missed. Citing a report on Islamophobia by the think tank Policy Exchange, Shawcross shares the views of experts that the Islamist threat is severely underrepresented in Prevent referrals. This may be down to a fear of being labelled Islamophobic, but Shawcross found no convincing evidence to suggest this sentiment is widespread. 

When we compare the referral rate for both ideologies in the four-year period from 2018/19 to 2021/22, we find that they have steadily remained within a similar range (1000 – 1400). In the first of the two-year period, Islamist extremism had 19 more referrals in the first year and 106 in the second. Then in the following two-year period, there were 152 referrals in year three and 282 more referrals in year four for Extreme Right-wing referrals. These are hardly big numbers.

Ensuring that resources are allocated proportionately must be based on how each ideology is defined and the actual threat they pose, rather than solely on the referral rates. Going forward, it is crucial that variable terminology is not used and implemented. This could result in referral rates for both ideologies changing in the coming years to better reflect the actual threat each of them pose.

Wasiq Wasiq is an academic specialising in defence and terrorism.